Gary Johnston ran for two touchdowns and passed for three more to lead the University of West Alabama to a 42-27 victory over North Alabama, earning the Tigers the first outright Gulf South Conference championship in the history of the program.
“When we came here five years ago a lot of people told us, don't go there, it will end your career,” UWA head coach Will Hall said. “Now five years later we are the outright GSC champs and I couldn't be prouder of this football team. To go undefeated in conference play in a league like this is very satisfying.
“Credit has to go to an outstanding commitment from our administration and to our staff and everybody associated with the program,” Hall said. “It's been a steady process, but this football team is a great football team that has fought through adversity all year long.”
UWA improved to 8-3 overall and finished 5-0 in GSC play. North Alabama ends its season 5-5 and 2-3. The Tigers will now wait on the NCAA Division II football committee to decide their playoff assignment. The NCAA selection show is Sunday at 4 p.m.
West Alabama had been utilizing a two-quarterback system all season long, but with Kyle Caldwell getting nicked up early in the game, the load fell to Johnston and the junior from Gulf Shores answered the bell.
Johnston rushed for 151 yards and passed for 216 more, hitting Chad Toocheck for a pair of touchdown passes. Johnston completed 12-of-15. Toocheck had four catches for 61 yards and Seth Roberts had career-high five receptions for 126 yards and a score.
“This is big for us. The first outright GSC championship for the program and the first championship of any kind since 1975,” Johnston said. “We have great playmakers and I just have to get them the football. They make it really easy on me.”
While Johnston stole the show on offense, defensive end Ridge Wilson was leading the UWA defense with 10 tackles, two sacks and five tackles for loss. The senior from Louisville, Ky., also forced a fumble.
“This is big, but we still have work to do,” said Wilson, who leads the GSC with 11 sacks and now has an additional 13 tackles for loss. “Hopefully we are getting ready to make a run in the playoffs.”
North Alabama opened the scoring on a 1-yard run by Chris Alexander to cap a 13-play, 74 yards drive, taking 7:02 off the clock.
The Tigers answered on the next possession when Johnston connected on a 14-yard scoring pass to Toocheck at the 1:42 mark in the first period. The touchdown pass capped a seven-play, 75-yard drive to tie the score at 7-7.
Johnston put the Tigers ahead 14-7 with 9:07 left in the first half with his first rushing TD, a 1-yard run to cap 12-play, 70-yard drive.
The Lions returned the favor, evening the score at 14-14 when Caleb Massey intercepted Johnston and returned it 39 yards for a touchdown with 1:32 left in the first half.
Then the UWA fireworks began. Malcolm Butler gathered in the ensuing kickoff and returned it from a yard deep in the Tiger end zone for a touchdown and a 21-14 West Alabama lead.
“I have been wanting to get the chance to do that all year, but the coaches wanted to protect me from possibly getting hurt,” said Butler, who is also a starting cornerback and shares the team lead with five interceptions. “They decided to take a chance tonight and put me back there and I am sure glad they did.”
North Alabama fumbled on its next play from scrimmage and UWA's Rico Jernighan recovered at the Lions 39. Johnston connected with Seth Roberts down to the UNA 1 yard line, where Johnston punched in his second rushing TD of the game to put the Tigers up 28-14 at the half.
North Alabama threatened late in the half, but Otha Foster blocked a Lion field goal attempt on the final play. The blocked field goal was West Alabama's fourth of the year.
Johnston connected with Toocheck on a 6-yard scoring pass on the Tigers first drive of the second half to cap a nine-play, 68-yard drive and give UWA a 35-14 lead with 8:09 left in the third period.
Chris Alexander connected with Melvin Harris on a 22-yard touchdown pass to cut the UWA lead to 35-21 with 3:09 left in the third period, capping a 75-yard scoring drive.
On the first play of the fourth quarter Johnston connected with Roberts on a 50-yard scoring pass, capping a seven-play, 90-yard drive that took 3:12 off the clock and put UWA up 42-21.
UNA place kicker Taylor Pontius connected on a pair of late field goals for UNA to make up the final margin.
Alexander led UNA ball carriers with 111 yards on 18 carries and connected on 9-of-15 passes for 148 yards and a score. The touchdown pass was just the fifth given up by West Alabama all season. Lee Mayhall had seven receptions for 81 yards for the Lions.